By Ann Glumac

The scenario: Pat, an aquatic biologist, has just delivered a well-researched technical presentation to a lake association on a topic dear to Pat’s heart: the negative impact of residential fertilizer and pesticide application on water quality. Pat worked hard on the presentation – more than 45 minutes of PowerPoint slides, complete with footnotes, photos and graphs.

While drinking coffee later, Pat heard these snippets of conversation from the audience:

“Runoff is only dangerous to fish.”

“Roses don’t need fertilizer.”

“The weeds on the grass are the same weeds that are in the water.”

“Cow manure is a natural fertilizer, so it must be good for water.”

“Pesticides will kill weeds in the water, so it’s okay to apply them to the lawn.”

Pat was stunned; each comment was only partially true or totally misinterpreted.

Silently, Pat thought:  “How could the audience get it so wrong?”

A better question for Pat to consider is:  “How did I do my audience so wrong?”

Chances are, Pat didn’t think about crafting a limited number of messages to support the proposition that over-application of pesticides and fertilizers was damaging the lake. Pat gave the kind of technical talk that might persuade a scientist—a scientist like Pat—providing every bit of scientific support for the proposition, hoping to persuade the audience with an abundance of technical facts.

Instead, the audience had to pick and choose from Pat’s endless supply of facts and figures, got confused and came up with their own ideas — many of which were flat out wrong.

How could this happen when every fact was accurate, every figure precise?

Pat forgot that to communicate successfully with an audience, a presenter must identify three or so key messages to convey, key messages the audience will understand and be able to remember after the presentation is over. Additional facts can be used to support them, but effective presentations rarely have more than three or four key messages.

 What Are Key Messages and Why Are They Important?


Key messages are the main ideas you want your audience to remember. They are the take-aways. Key messages form the body of presentations and help organize facts and figures, which are used to support them.

Effective presenters limit the number of key messages because research demonstrates that humans can’t process more than three or four things in short-term memory.

Effective presenters make sure key messages are short, clear and to the point– that they’re easy for the average human to understand and remember.

Effective presenters want their key messages to be easy to understand because they want their audience to repeat them – to themselves, to colleagues, family, friends, neighbors. The repetition actually helps transfer the key messages from short-term memory to long-term memory.

So, the next time you’re preparing a presentation – technical or not – consider the afterlife of your technical presentation. Will the audience remember your key messages or a confused jumble of misunderstood facts?

To ensure a happy afterlife for your technical presentation or speech:

  • Identify three (absolutely no more than four) key messages that are the main ideas you want the audience to take away from your presentation.
  • Articulate the key messages in short, clear statements.
  • Support the key messages with carefully selected facts.

What has been your experience hearing a presentation stuffed with too many facts and missing key messages? Please leave a comment.

2 Responses to The Afterlife of a Technical Speech: What Will Your Audience Remember?

  • Recovering engineer says:

    Thank you for putting out this blog! I have just finished reading the first 3 posts.
    I have made numerous technically related presentations to audiences ranging from angry neighborhood groups, to local elected officials, state government and a conference room full of my technical peers. After some dismal failures, I learned from trial and error, many of the concepts pResented here.
    Along with knowing what you want accomplish, you must also know what your audiences’ expectations are, which many times one cannot really ascertain until your already part way into your presentation. Be adept enough to switch gears!
    Would like to hear from others on thEir experiences and thoughts!

  • Bill ULLAND says:

    VERY WELL DONE. GOOD REAL LIFE EXAMPLES AND ADVICE.

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